Riveting and revelatory

Groundbreaking work examines role of Jews during prohibition in America.

jews in prohibition521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
jews in prohibition521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
One might imagine any discussion of Jews and alcohol as a mighty short conversation indeed. Jews don’t drink; on to the next topic.
But one would be seriously mistaken. To be sure, Purim aside, Jews historically have remarkably little association with drunkenness.
Yet wine has played a role in the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath and festivals from time immemorial. (The Romans were reportedly puzzled by the carvings of grapes on the gates of the Second Temple.) Jews moreover maintained vineyards and processed their own wine in Europe and elsewhere for well over 1,000 years, and for centuries Jews were prominent as distillers, tavern keepers, and middlemen in the marketing and distribution of grain used in the production of alcoholic beverages. Tevye the milkman was surely a minority player in the history of Jews peddling potables.
But it was in North America that the story of Jews and alcohol took on a profoundly complex social, economic and political character. From their very beginnings, Americans were a hard-drinking lot. (How else could Washington’s rebel army survive that cruel winter at Valley Forge?) They were so commonly pickled in alcohol that temperance movements got under way in the very early days of the republic, rivaling the efforts to abolish slavery and give women the vote.
Indeed, after the Civil War, the alcohol question dominated much of the American agenda. By the end of the 19th century several states had banned alcohol, and by 1916 no fewer than 20 had gone dry. Three years later, with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages became the law of the entire land.
All of this is well documented, and of course the Prohibition era, with its speakeasies and bootleggers and gangsters, has become a mainstay of popular culture and entertainment. Much less known is how central Jews were to the movement to ban the demon drink in the US.
Sober study This is the subject of Jews and Booze, which, despite its lighthearted title (and which must have been simply impossible to resist), is a scholarly and, well, deeply sober study. Marni Davis, an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, has produced a book that is as riveting as it is revelatory.
With their reputation as moderate tipplers, their involvement in the spirits trade and their devotion to sacramental wine, it is unsurprising that few Jews embraced the temperance cause.
What is surprising is how deeply anti- Semitism and anti-alcohol went hand in hand. Temperance movements in America were overwhelmingly the product of Protestant, rural and nativist communities that viewed cities and their immigrant populations (Jews, Italians, Irish and Catholics) as despoilers of the American body and soul.
It was no accident that the strongest component of the Prohibition campaign called itself the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan vigorously supported the effort to ban alcohol; small wonder that the Anti- Saloon League commonly targeted what it called “Jew saloons.”
There was a certain grain of alcoholic truth in such linkage. In its crudest sense the argument went like this: Jews sold liquor to blacks, who then went crazy and raped white women. Reductive logic, yes; but Davis documents the fact that Jews did own an inordinate number of taverns that catered to African Americans in the south. This relationship figured greatly, for example, in the Atlanta race riots of 1906, which centered on the Jewish-owned bars in the city’s black district. Matters were not helped by the liquor wholesaler Lee Levy making a fortune from a product labeled “Black Cock Vigor Gin.”
Truth is, not all Jewish immigrants humbly sewed garments for a living. Jews, as they had been in Europe, were quite prominent in America’s saloon trade, starting at the nation’s very shores. Seedy Jewish- owned drinking establishments (along with brothels) were common throughout New York’s Lower East Side. Schapiro’s House of Kosher Wine occupied an entire block of Rivington Street. There were even stills in Jewish tenements. (Visitors to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side today won’t learn any of this.) Similarly, Jews continued their European careers as liquor merchants in America, owning perhaps as much as 25 percent of the distilleries in Kentucky and elsewhere.
(Jewish bourbon barons were among the founding financial backers of the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky.) In Canada, the Bronfman family made a vast fortune in liquor – and once Prohibition became the law of the land in the US, the family would only increase its wealth and influence by pouring millions of gallons of alcohol over the border. (So much so that Lake Erie was commonly referred to as the “Jewish lake.”) Thus, Jews got it in the neck for being teetotalers and for simultaneously profiting from liquor, for opposing Prohibition on religious grounds and for gaining the sacramental wine exemption that was written into the Volstead Act, and not least for being prominent among the bootleggers (from the gangsters Meyer Lansky and Longy Zwillman to the rabbis and pseudorabbis who profited through various forms of sacramental wine chicanery).
In response, the Jewish community was divided over Prohibition. Most Jewish leaders urged strict adherence to the law of the land, but others maintained Prohibition was a misguided idea that violated civil and religious liberties. Halakhic scholars argued over whether or not grape juice or unfermented raisin wine might be acceptable substitutes for traditional wine at the Shabbat table. Others debated for and against the importation of kosher wine from Palestine. Still others found Prohibition a key issue in the conflict between acculturation and the maintenance of Jewish tradition.
Prof. Davis documents all this and more with academic scrupulosity. (She deserves an extra toast at the very least for reviving the astonishing adventures of Izzy Einstein, whose nearly 5,000 busts made him the champion Bureau of Prohibition enforcement agent.) “Jews and Booze” is nothing less than a groundbreaking and eye-opening work of American Jewish history.